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November 18: Refuge in the Virgin Islands

November 18, 2014
ph roosevelt hullIn the wake of Nazi Germany’s 1938 Kristallnacht attacks on Jews, the American Virgin Islands’ Governor Lawrence J. Cramer and legislative assembly offered sanctuary to German and Austrian refugees on this date of that year. Less than a month later, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull (shown with FDR at right) declared that the resolution was “incompatible” with existing laws between the United States and the Virgin Islands. It took more than a year for the Department of Labor to state that the resolution did indeed coincide with the laws, but the plan died when Attorney General Frank Murphy refused to revive it in October 1939. When the refugee ship St. Louis approached America the following spring, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes urged President Franklin Roosevelt to use the Virgin Islands as a haven for its passengers, but FDR blocked the proposal, claiming that Nazi spies might sneak in among the refugees. For a complete telling of this story of what a Treasury Department official called “murder by delay,” click here. “Contrary to popular belief, the problem for Jews during the Holocaust was not how to get out, but where to go. The key figures in most governments throughout the world, instead of liberalizing their immigration laws, closed their borders to the hunted Jews, or at most admitted token numbers only. The Nazis set the house aflame, and the free world barred the doors.” —William R. Perl